Sunday, July 18, 2010

Rocky: Love, Friendship, and Boxing...A Movie Series with Heart

The saga of boxer Rocky Balboa is unique in its depth, quality, continuity, and widespread appeal. The six movies that make up the Rocky series tell a compelling, meaningful, and action-packed story that's just as appropriate for Sports Night as it is for Date Night. With its heart-pounding (and head-pounding) fight scenes, organic and often funny dialogue, and remarkably believable characters, Rocky's got more than enough to please people from all walks of life, regardless of race, color, or Creed.

The six Rocky films follow the life of Rocky "The Italian Stallion" Balboa, a no-name fighter whose tough exterior and punchy speech belie the sensitivity and wisdom within, a man who literally and figuratively rolls with the punches and goes wherever life takes him. Rocky suffers some hard blows both in and outside the boxing ring, but he draws strength from his friends and family and regains clarity when he returns to his roots as a boy from urban Philadelphia.

Indeed, the Rocky saga is one of triumph over impossible odds, faithfulness to the ones you love, remembering who you are and where you came from, and beating the snot out of big, burly men. Strong character interactions cover a wide range of emotions, and varied storylines offer a chance to reflect on everything from social status to intercultural tensions to growing old and being past your prime.

Each Rocky movie culminates in a big fight, but the road that leads there shapes what happens there, and the ramifications of what happen in the fight are rarely confined to the boxing ring. They're not movies about boxing, nor are they movies that happen to have boxing in them: the Rocky films chronicle the life of this guy named Rocky Balboa, period. This is emphasized by the fact that the films span thirty years, the first having been released in 1976 and the last in 2006, so the actors grow older with their characters.

From a cinematic standpoint, the films are very much a product of their time period--the music and storytelling style make it very easy to pinpoint the year or decade each film was released--yet there's still a timeless feel about them.

Almost without exception, each film picks up exactly where the last one left off, enhancing the sensation that this is indeed a story rather than just a bunch of movies. Even so, it's the actors who truly sell the story aspect--Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, and many others make their characters come alive to the point where you forget anybody is acting.

Rocky also perfected the art of the montage: every film has at least one training montage or flashback sequence that helps to illustrate how things are changing and how things have changed (or stayed constant). The montages are interesting enough on their own, but when you throw in composer Bill Conti's triumphant "Gonna Fly Now" (AKA "Theme to Rocky") or Survivor's incredibly catchy "Eye of the Tiger," the montages can become very uplifting and powerful.

In contrast to almost any other non-trilogy movie series, and almost without exception, each Rocky picks up exactly where the last one left off, or close enough that you can use your imagination to fill in the gaps. This makes the Rocky series an excellent choice for a movie marathon: Sure, you can watch one at a time, but the films are better in pairs, trilogies, a quartet and a pair, or all six in a row (c'mon; what else could you possibly need those twelve hours for?).

Regardless of how you watch the films, it's almost essential to start with the first one (though each film has enough flashbacks and explanation for you to jump in anywhere, if you have to, I guess). However, I've heard multiple people say that the first movie was okay, but it didn't enthuse them enough to bother with the rest of the series.

Take my advice: Watch Rocky, and if you don't vehemently hate the film, watch Rocky II. The first two movies are different enough from each other that you'll almost certainly play favorites, and I've found that Rocky II is the film that gets naysayers hooked.

If you're still indifferent to or turned off by both movies, you'd best stop there--the standard of quality is fairly consistent across the series, and if you haven't been won over by the end of II, then there's just no hope for you. If you have been won over, then there's really no reason not to see the saga through to its completion, unless your interest honestly begins to wane after III or IV.

That being said, here's my take on each of the movies, with as much brevity and as few spoilers as I can muster (I.e. this might only make sense if you've seen the movies, so go watch them):

Rocky: Origin stories tend to be among my least favorite installments in a series, and Rocky is no exception. It's largely a character study, with the action and conflict only really kicking in toward the end; the flip side is that the movie establishes a solid and complex foundation for the other movies to draw from, so I respect Rocky for creating a world with characters who are interesting enough to follow through five more movies.

Rocky has earned the critical praise it has received due to the strong script and outstanding performances, but like with Star Wars, I find myself more interested in what's to come than what's being established. An incredible amount of material from the first film influences or is referenced in the later films, so whether you're looking as it as a movie classic or as a critical part of a larger series, there's no excuse to skip this one.

Rocky II: Overall, this one's my favorite. Other films may have more exciting final showdowns, better music, and manlier plotlines, but Rocky II is my favorite for the same reason that Mega Man 4 is my favorite Mega Man game--of all the installments in a series I already know I like, this one does the least to bug me.

Rocky III: Despite the introduction of "Eye of the Tiger" and the celebrities brought in for the occasion, the entire first half of this film makes me feel mildly uncomfortable. The tone is a bit more serious, and (as is necessary to the plot) everything feels a little off. Perhaps it's more exhilarating because it serves as a release from all that discomfort and anxiety, but the second half of the movie is fantastic, and really helps to cement why this is a fan favorite. Interestingly, I like the second half of III more than I like all of II, but I like all of II better than I like all of III. Figure that one out.

Rocky IV: This one should have been my favorite film in the series. The kind of pumping electronic 80s music that's right up my alley, good pacing, dramatic fight scenes, a good message at its heart, and bad guys who are very clearly the bad guys (though their motivations are understandable, and the good guys aren't painted in such a great light, either, so it works out well).

What's holding it back? There's a little too much flashback montage and a little too little character development leading up to the final confrontation. Equally as important, I have to suspend my disbelief a little too far in certain spots, especially when it comes to a certain...piece of technology. I still think the movie is great, but with a few changes, it could've been even greater.

Rocky V: Sly Stallone himself once said in an interview that, when rating the Rocky movies on a scale of one to ten, he'd give this one a "goose egg." Big fat zero. I can't say I'm quite as harsh, but I'm definitely on the same page here--this is the only movie in the series I genuinely don't like. Interesting tidbit: Stallone directed every Rocky movie except I and V, which were directed by John G. Avildsen. I and V are my least-favorite Rocky movies. I'm not blaming Avildsen; I'm just noticing a connection.

Rocky V bothers me because I don't like any of the new major characters, who feel more like exaggerations or symbols than the real people I've come to expect from the series. It's the darkest movie of them all, with a lot of bad things that happen and never get a satisfying resolution like in Rocky III.

The last fight in the movie just feels wrong, and it only gets worse when the heroic Rocky theme starts playing. The conclusion leaves me feeling empty and like there are still some big issues that are unresolved; if you view the movie through the filter that the characters are symbols, then it's not as bad, but the fact of the matter is that I like approximately 25 minutes of the movie, and it just keeps getting harder to watch as time goes on.

Rocky Balboa: I normally object to resurrecting a franchise more than a decade after the last sequel, but in this case, I can absolutely make an exception; Rocky V is a weak place to end such a strong series. I actually like this movie a great deal--though the script isn't as clever and quirky as in some of the other films, it's highly introspective, and a fitting way to close off a series that has covered so much ground over such a long period of time.

It's about moving forward when it looks like there's nowhere left to go, and it's about closure, and these themes work well for the characters and the movie series itself; plus, that's to say nothing of the people who can relate to those themes. Especially after marathoning the entire Rocky saga over the course of a day or a few days, Rocky Balboa serves as a superb way to reflect on the life of this underdog boxer and to process how you've just watched thirty years of a person's life develop over the course of about twelve hours.

So there you have it. Six films that, together, tell a story of courage, love, friendship, and pounding grown men into submission. If you've got a movie night coming up, give Rocky and Rocky II a shot, and make sure you've got a clear favorite before moving on to Rocky III--we wouldn't want to have a split decision.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

All series are great.every part is related to the past one.u got a big mouth flashman and I feel that u r asame as mr gazo driver...maybe I should.....joking lol